Whites then Blacks abandoned Jackson, propelling its water crisis

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
The Mississippi Capitol building on Sept. 3 in Jackson, Miss.

JACKSON, Miss. – Alecia McCarty awakens every morning wondering whether water will flow from her tap, and if it will be drinkable.

Earlier last week, her water was tea-colored before it sputtered and shut off. On Saturday it flowed fast and clear, but McCarty still couldn’t drink it from the tap under city orders.

She and her children, ages 10 and 11, have had to brush their teeth with bottled water, then spend time refilling the family supply at two water distributions at nearby churches. They have used a garden hose daily to fill four buckets of water to run the toilet.

McCarty, 35, works as a caregiver to a bedridden elderly woman in the nearby town of Madison, which like most areas surrounding Jackson was unscathed, thanks to its newer water system.

“They don’t have water problems,” she said. “They don’t have any of these problems.”

Jackson has been under a boil water notice since late July, with long-standing water system failures exacerbated by recent flooding and broken pumps at the city’s main water plant that left many in the capital city of 150,000 without water last week. It wasn’t clear how soon the system would be fixed, at what cost or by whom.

The opposing circumstances, suffering in Jackson as surrounding towns are spared, are rooted in decades of racism, historians and infrastructure experts say. Those divides rest on the impact of two separate migrations out of the city.

White flight beginning in the 1970s drove onetime Jackson residents into neighboring areas. The city’s decline since then has prompted better-off Black residents to escape Jackson’s failing infrastructure, not just water but also roads and schools. The more recent departures further eroded the city’s tax base, lessening its ability to afford repairs or apply for federal money as its infrastructure crumbled.

Gabriel Killingsworth lives in suburban Clinton with his girlfriend, a registered nurse who bought their brick house in a subdivision last year after living in Jackson. Both are Black. Since this past week, his daughter has been coming from Jackson with her 7-year-old son to shower, eat and do laundry.

“We worry for everybody, it’s bad for everybody right now. You think about it one way or another – you got family in it,” Killingsworth, 45, said as he trimmed his grass Saturday.

Last week, Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves declared an emergency, triggering federal aid. The Biden administration’s infrastructure coordinator, Mitch Landrieu, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell arrived Friday to meet with officials and tour a damaged water plant.

Criswell praised what she called “one team of local, state and federal government working together to make sure that we are addressing these needs.”

But experts say the image of unity that government leaders have attempted to project during the latest crisis belies deep-rooted political divisions that contributed to Jackson’s debilitated infrastructure and will probably block long-term fixes without federal intervention.

Zakiya Summers, a Democrat who represents Jackson in the state legislature, said state Republican leaders tried to block $47 million this year earmarked for water and sewer repairs in Jackson. Ultimately, they provided $3 million.

“We certainly have been a victim of systemic and structural racism in the city of Jackson. And I don’t think it’s unique to Jackson. I think it’s true of majority-minority cities across the South,” said Summers, 39, who lives in West Jackson, which has been hard hit by water problems.

“The city of Jackson has a lot of issues. We have seen not just White flight but Black middle class leaving the city. We don’t have the number of households to generate the revenue to fix and sustain the water-sewer system.”

Wealthier areas, she said, “tend to get more resources, more state support. West Jackson, we haven’t seen that in a while. It’s areas where poor Black people are concentrated where help is slow moving or it’s none at all.”

Robert Luckett, a Jackson State university history professor, noted that the contrast was stark this past week in places like County Line Road, which separates Jackson from neighboring Ridgeland. One side of the street had water while on the other, homes, hotels and other businesses made do without, setting up portable bathrooms outside.

“It’s crazy how you can go one block and you go from a town that has none of the issues we have to a town with no water,” Luckett said.

“This is all rooted in a politics that is based around racial attitudes and a racist history that continues to impact the city and a White leadership of the state who benefits from their suffering,” he said. “They didn’t think it was fair for the city of Jackson to get these resources when their own constituents didn’t have access to the same pot of money.”

Luckett said the city’s infrastructure problems started around 1970, when federal courts forced Jackson schools to desegregate – 16 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Thousands of White families moved out of the city, many sending their children to private schools run by the White Citizens’ Councils, white supremacist groups, he said.

“And with them went the support of the capital city and the resources,” said Luckett, a Jackson native.

Jackson has lost roughly 40,000 residents since the population peaked at about 200,000 in 1980, census figures show. Jackson is now about 83% Black, with a quarter living in poverty. All public school students receive free breakfast and lunch, so when schools went remote last week because of the water crisis, they had to scramble to ensure that children received enough to eat at home, said Luckett, who serves on the school board of trustees.

Luckett, who is White, lives in north Jackson’s tony Fondren neighborhood. He’s had sporadic water in recent days but said he feels lucky compared with low-income neighbors without transportation.

“I can afford to deal with the crisis in ways that the majority of impoverished people in Jackson don’t,” he said, including buying bottled water and driving to friends’ homes to shower. “For those who are stuck where they are, it’s a desperate situation.”

W. Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama, said it is common after emergencies or disasters for federal aid to flow to more affluent communities, a “resiliency divide” fueled by biases toward rebuilding in more valuable areas that the Biden administration has vowed to tackle.

“My hope is FEMA and the administration are putting a lot of effort into eliminating that divide,” said Fugate, who previously served as Florida’s emergency administrator. “The reality is poorer communities have been left behind in many of our investments to rebuild infrastructure. Whether it’s Appalachia or what we’re seeing in Jackson, Miss., or in Flint, Mich., our infrastructure investments have not kept up with the changing risks. Our investments need to be looked at through the lens of where are the most vulnerable populations, not necessarily where are the most valuable properties.”

Urban planning experts contrast the investment that flows to better-off White areas with that lacking in places like Jackson.

“Racism set Jackson up for failure. It was a man-made disaster that was decades in the making,” said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “It was a lack of investment in Black people that failed the water system.

“When you do get a new mall, a new community college, a new movie theater, they’re typically placed in non-Black areas. Those developments lead to infrastructure development,” he said. “So there is a tacit refurbishing or a greater likelihood that infrastructure is built in White areas.”

Perry said he isn’t optimistic that the Biden administration can fix the underlying problems.

“Prior to this catastrophic emergency, Jackson had multiple smaller incidents where the governor did little to nothing,” he said, adding that all but one Republican member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation voted against President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Mississippi has required local communities to provide matching funds for federal pandemic relief money dedicated to infrastructure; Jackson’s share was limited to $25 million because that was all the city could put up in matching funds. Reeves blamed the city, while local officials note that having to pay for constantly failing infrastructure can leave cities like Jackson strapped for matching money.

“That is how places like the Gulf Coast, Madison, Clinton, the newer towns who don’t have to spend all their money on old stuff, they have much more money to apply and get more of that one-time federal money,” said Ed Cole, who worked for state Democratic lawmakers in Jackson and for seven years led the state Democratic Party.

When Cole, 78, moved to his home in South Jackson in 1984, the neighborhood was about half Black. By the time his now 40-year-old son graduated from high school, the area was majority Black, he said.

“The tax base shrunk to the point where there just hasn’t been money to do the core infrastructure,” Cole said. “Towns around us that used to be 2,000 to 3,000 people are now 35,000 people, many of whom used to live in Jackson.”

Cole’s water started cutting off last year. All five of his sons had moved away, two nearby to West Jackson and Raymond. They stop by to deliver food and water, or Cole visits to use their water.

Since moving to Clinton five years ago from Michigan, Nick Lewis hasn’t had any water problems.

Lewis, 26, a Black software engineer, said he and his wife, a registered nurse and Jackson native, are expecting their first child but chose not to live in Jackson even though she still has family there.

“Jackson’s got a bunch of issues: water, the roads, but also crime” and schools, he said Saturday as he cut the lush lawn surrounding his red brick home.

Lewis is originally from Flint, where he saw the toll taken by the 2014 water crisis there – in which lead leeching from old pipes poisoned the water supply for the majority-Black city. His family drank bottled water for years.

“It’s supposedly fixed, but people still don’t drink it,” he said.

Lewis said his wife’s family in Jackson still can’t drink their water. He’s not sure how soon the city will recover.

“Everything around Jackson is growing. If Jackson can rebuild, I think people would move back,” he said. “But it’s going to take a while.”